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The Next Pope: Anonymous Cardinal Warns Fellow Cardinals

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In the waning days of Pope Francis’ pontificate, many are wondering: who are the likely candidates for the next papal election? This topic picks up steam from time to time and the intrigue around the changing of the papacy is not new to this pontificate (see this book published in 1995).

The conversation about Francis’ successor was lit anew in 2020 surrounding Edward Pentin’s book “The Next Pope.” Pentin’s work is an illuminating study of nineteen then-eligible cardinals and where they stand on a variety of church issues. It is not a predictive book, but rather a profile of some of the world’s papabile cardinals.

Most recently, an article published in the Daily Compass by an anonymous cardinal has stirred up this speculation again, decrying the problems of the Francis Pontificate with charity and precision and calling on the next pope to be a reformer. This new letter, signed “Demos II” is a continuation of the late Cardinal Pell’s anonymous “Demos” letter, which excoriated the present pontiff and exhorted the Cardinals to their duties. The “Demos II Letter” has a much gentler tone, but has virtually the same diagnosis of this pontificate that Cardinal Pell / “Demos” did when he adroitly summarized it:

Previously it was: “Roma locuta. Causa finita est.” Today it is: “Roma loquitur. Confusio augetur.”

So this new letter says something we already knew. But thank God another cardinal is saying it, albeit anonymously.

To give some further context to the Demos II Letter, here I will briefly summarize the creation of the cardinalate as an ecclesiastical institution to assist the divine institution of the Papacy.

Establishment and Early Years

The College of Cardinals was established informally in the early centuries of the Church, evolving naturally from the leading clergy of Rome, who would assist and advise the pope. Its exact founding date is not clear, but by the 6th century, it had developed into an organized body with distinct roles and responsibilities. Initially, its main function was to advise the Pope and assist in the governance of the Church.

Church historian Christopher Bellito writes:

From the mid-11th century, cardinals took on added importance: their liturgical functions were displaced by new institutional tasks as a result of the Gregorian reform. This had actually begun under Pope Leo IX (1049-1054), when ecclesiastical organization became more centralized and the European Church was brought under strong, direct papal control. As institutional apparatuses expanded, so did the need for qualified personnel to oversee papal business.

Electing Popes

In 1059, Pope Nicholas II issued In Nomine Domini which stated that cardinals would carry out the duty of electing the pope. The context of this move was the movement of the Cluniac monks to address the corruption of the First Pornocracy and liberate the Papacy from the power of the Roman aristocracy. This meant that by the close of the 11th century, papal elections were officially in the hands of the cardinals, although the process was still often influenced by temporal authorities and powerful families (the college of course did not prevent the Second Pornocracy, or the Third under which we now suffer). Over time, papal elections became more formalized, with the cardinals gathering in a conclave to choose the next Pope, and the cardinals themselves being appointed from worldwide Christendom rather than from Italy and France, who previously had the lion share of the representation in the college.

Cardinal Numbers Throughout Pontificates

The number of cardinals has varied throughout history, and different popes and councils saw fit to increase or reduce the number. In the earliest years of the college it ballooned to several hundred members, but throughout the end of the Middle Ages it was restricted to a much smaller number, sometimes just a handful. For those who are interested, here is a fascinating website that details the information we know about papal elections dating back to the 11th century.

In the late 16th century, Pope Sixtus V capped the number of cardinals at 70, and this would hold firm for several centuries, solidifying the precedent that the number needed to stay small in order to continue the stated role of advising and assisting the pope. With too many cardinals, this role would only be diminished and its importance to the pope lessened. A pope simply cannot entertain close advice from hundreds of men; it is not tenable or practical and the cardinals cannot, as Bellito writes, “enjoy an especially close relationship with the pope.”

Pope St. Paul VI’s Changes to Voting Age

This continuity of a small college was broken in the 20th century, as we saw multiple swellings of the numbers under John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II, who increased it as high as 160.

Pope Paul VI also made significant changes to the College of Cardinals with his apostolic constitution Romano Pontifici Eligendo, issued in 1975. Among these changes were the adjustment of the voting age for cardinal electors from 80 to 75 years old and the limit of 120 total cardinal electors (not cardinals in total).

Growth Under Pope Francis

Pope Francis, since his election in 2013, has continued in the footsteps of his recent predecessors, appointing 131 new cardinals to the College. He claims to have focused on diversifying the College by selecting cardinals from regions traditionally underrepresented. Additionally, Pope Francis has appointed cardinals from countries where Catholicism is a minority religion, emphasizing a global perspective within the College. As of early 2024, there are 239 cardinals and 129 of voting age (despite the limit of 120 cardinal electors – several will age out this year).

Though it is impossible to predict who the next pope will be, there is great historical precedent that he will not be over 80 years of age: the oldest pope ever to be elected was Clement X, who was 79. This metric would rule out over 100 of the current cardinals, and another thirteen who are 79 this year.

A stated purpose of Edward Pentin’s book was to help the cardinals get to know one another, because without frequent consistories, they have limited knowledge of who they could be voting for. The Demos II Letter also makes this claim:

The current pontificate has placed an emphasis on diversifying the college, but it has failed to bring cardinals together in regular consistories designed to foster genuine collegiality and trust among brothers. As a result, many of the voting electors in the next conclave will not really know each other, and thus may be more vulnerable to manipulation. In the future, if the college is to serve its purposes, the cardinals who inhabit it need more than a red zucchetto and a ring. Today’s College of Cardinals should be proactive about getting to know each other to better understand their particular views regarding the Church, their local church situations, and their personalities – which impact their consideration of the next pope.

We should pray that the Holy Spirit will guide the college of cardinals on their mission of assisting, advising, and electing the pope, and that the college will be reformed to meet more frequently and to reduce the number of members necessary. May God in his wisdom guide us through this tumultuous pontificate and the transition to whoever awaits the Chair of Peter.

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